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April 8, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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How I Facebooked Your Mother (From What I Can Remember)

the revoLution in how we communicate isn’t happening; it’s happened. both Letters and emaiL are aLready compLeteLy irreLevant. we are taLking to each other more than ever, using a pLethora of different tooLs, but has it become too easy? did the arduous process of actuaLLy writing a Letter Let us dispLay our thoughts in fuLL, or just Let us hide them with eLegance? is a facebook chat message any Less ‘reaL’ than ink on paper? shouLd we be saving our favourite @repLies in a shoebox?

I have never written a letter.

I’ve written thousands upon thousands of emails, over ten thousand tweets, and more Facebook Chat messages than would be considered healthy. All of these messages, made up of electromagnetic pulses rather than ink on paper, are indexed and stored somewhere, in a system far more
intricate and organised than any letter writer’s shoebox; but I never revisit any of them. They just don’t seem worth the effort.

Letters have dominated long-distance person-to-person communication for much of human history. Persians developed the first formal postal
system—for tax reasons—around 500 BC, but hand-delivered written messages have existed since around the invention of writing. While the
largest, the internet was not the first disruption to rock traditional letter-writing. The fax’s era was cut short by the internet, but the telegraph and the telephone both made some impact. Of course, the telegraph was far too cumbersome (STOP) and the phone far too immediate to really change things, so letters remained dominant right up until the turn of the millennium.

Humans hate change, and you can see that in our early email patterns. We clung to artifacts from the letter-writing past, from the “dear” to the “Yours”. While the medium has slowly began to inform the message, our email software remains trapped in the past, complete with an ‘inbox’, envelope icons, and of course the word: ’email’. But email was just the start.

I now use email for work. Pretty much just that. I suspect many of you are the same. I can talk to my friends in about a million other ways, from the post-ironic teen-speak of Facebook chat (“suu bored”) to the scribbled-over selfies of SnapChat. These services all cater to different needs, of course: Twitter is for violently agreeing with a whole lot of people at once; Facebook is for killing time at work, GChat is for panicking about assignments; and Snapchat is for selfies. However, there is one common theme.

None of these messages feel important. They certainly don’t feel ‘considered’. Only a special type of perfectionist spell checks their IMs. Although (mostly) written, these exchanged messages generally feel much more like a conversation, a form of communication that has nearly always
remained ephemeral, very much of-the-time. Conversations feel very different from letters—much more natural and unrestrained, with mistakes and sides aplenty—while the carefully constructed letter keeps us within the artificial bounds of traditional prose. Letters require one to sit back and consider a little, even involuntarily, given the time it takes to compose them. Conversations are instant, much older than letters, and much more suited to how humans actually think. Letters require the organisation of thought into concrete sentences, some kind of a basic structure and the effort to go through with all this. Conversations are mostly impulsive: one’s thoughts, free of planning or much in the way of syntax. Hemingway’s letters to Fitzgerald are incredibly illuminating and beautiful, sure, but just imagine their IMs.

So are we actually losing something, or is this reversion to conversational forms just a needed course correction from the millennia-long aberration that was the written letter? It isn’t like long form is dead. Whenever the word ‘letter’ enters the modern day media vernacular it is usually preceded by the word ‘open’, as in, intended for broadcast. You are reading “long-form” content right now—it’s just addressed to the several thousand people who read Salient, rather than you specifically. Such forms of communication feel worth keeping, worth going back to, while the 31,639 Facebook messages between my best friend and I that mostly consist of “how’s werk? gd.” should probably fade into digital death.

But they won’t.

In mid-2011, Facebook radically redesigned its users’ profiles, and drew more than the customary amount of ire. The ‘profile’ became the timeline’, and suddenly jumping years back into someone else’s life was as easy as checking your email. Granted, you could still only jump back to ‘public’ content, but it was certainly jarring, to say the least. I typed differently in 2008. I’m still friends with many of the same people, but we are all talking about stuff none of us remember, using words and sentence structures that look completely out of place beside our current profile pictures. the one saving grace of this new feature? nobody really gives a fuck what I was saying in 2010.

Herein lies the problem. While historians bemoan how little record we have of ancient civilisations, far too much of our time will survive. Our
throwaway conversational moments are now digital, and thus, permanent, however worthless they may be. We are producing digital content—not just messages, but photos, blogs, tweets, videos—far faster than ever before. A baby born into the Western world today will probably have more photos taken of it in its first year than its grandfather had in their entire life. The three framed photos my family have of my great-grandfather are all I have to construct an idea of him from—my grandchildren will have access to gigabytes of data I have produced, from photos to tweets to random comments, but they probably won’t care. Sure, knowing a few things your grandfather said at age 13 would be kind of cool, but scanning through thousands of tweets about long-dead politicians? Boring, and not revealing in the kind of transcendent way one would like. Does the sheer tonnage of content we will all leave for future generations mean none of it will be seen as relevant? it’s pretty hard to seperate the wheat from the chaff here; even the best tweets usually need some context, and I’m not sure my kids will care about the thousands of text messages their parents exchanged finalising dinner plans.

Change never happens as fast as we would like. A watched kettle never boils, a watched superpower never bans assault rifles, and a watched civilisation never evolves. I may have never written a letter, but I’ve grown up in a world where letters were still a ‘thing’; where they permeated pop culture and postal slots the world over. More ephemeral communication methods are definitely changing the way everything works—
from the ease with which a company or politician can respond to a citizen, to the fact that saying “hi” to my friend who lives in England is as easy as saying it to my flatmate—but increasing the efficiency and convenience of long-distance communication can hardly be a bad thing. Every technological movement seems suspect for a while, before it becomes, well, boring. If it isn’t your thing, you can always appear offline.

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